Go ahead, admit it, you still have the whirlies from the incredible finishes to the wild-card races. Now get ready for another head rush, as the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays prepare to meet the monoliths in their respective leagues. Rarely has a postseason ramped up to this much anticipation. Who has an antidote for Justin Verlander’s heat? Who has a chance to shock the Philadelphia Phillies? Who can contain the New York Yankees’ offense? You have questions. Bob Klapisch has answers. Together, we move forward into that beautiful, wide-open space called October.
Could there have been a better prologue than the thrillers Wednesday?
That would be impossible. You lived through history in the two hours during which the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves put the finishing touches on the kind of collapses that won't be forgotten. The trauma is especially deep in Boston, where Terry Francona might lose his job. Buck Showalter, whose Orioles broke the Red Sox’s hearts, said he "felt bad for Tito (Francona) and a good (Red Sox coaching) staff" after Jonathan Papelbon blew a 3-2 lead with two outs in the ninth inning. But the fates belonged to Tony La Russa and Joe Maddon. Who knows, maybe the Yankees will come to regret not using Mariano Rivera to finish off the Rays when they had the chance.
What happens if CC Sabathia loses Game 1 (of any series)?
That’s the doomsday question the Yankees have tried to avoid thinking about all season. Their hope of winning the pennant is based on the assumption of Sabathia's dominance, despite his 4.06 ERA after Aug. 1, and the fact four that of his highest pitch counts have come in his past five starts. Sabathia says he's not tired — he better not be, because No. 2 starter Ivan Nova has never thrown an inning in the postseason, and Freddy Garcia, who will get Game 3, lives on the razor’s edge of an 84- to 87-mph fastball.
Will the Rays' momentum carry into the postseason?
If you believe in chemistry and karma and all those intangibles that are routinely dismissed by the sabermetric community, the Rays are blessed right now. Their comeback from 7-0 down against the Yankees on Wednesday was nothing short of supernatural — even erudite manager Joe Maddon was left blabbering incoherently in the madness of the postgame clubhouse. The Rays believe in themselves, and rightly so. But it’s not just wish-casting that propels them: Tampa Bay boasts the American League’s best starting rotation — its 3.53 ERA is the lowest in the league, its 824 strikeouts were the most. And just as you would expect with a roster filled with young, athletic players, the Rays were the majors’ best defensive team, with only 72 errors.
Is there any reason to doubt the Phillies' invincibility?
You would be hard-pressed to find a flaw, except maybe that eight-game losing streak that emerged out of nowhere in mid-September. Six of those losses came at the hands of the lowly Nationals and Mets, too, so go figure. Still, when the Phillies needed to re-boot the engine against the Braves this week, they were more than ready, sweeping Atlanta right out of the playoffs. What makes the Phillies so dangerous, apart from the historic starting rotation, is how all the pieces are perfectly aligned. Charlie Manuel is the only manager in the postseason who won’t have to tweak, alter or otherwise rearrange his starters to fit the needs of any particular series. All the Phillies have to do is turn loose the hounds — Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt — and let the talent take over.
Can the Rangers win another pennant, this time without Cliff Lee?
It’s true, the starting rotation isn’t as potent as the one that shut down the Yankees in the American League Championship Series in 2010. How could it be? C.J. Wilson is a fine ace, but he’s not Lee. Still, the Rangers’ 3.79 ERA placed them fifth in the AL, a respectable slot. The problem is the bullpen: The 4.17 ERA was 12th in the league, and the 26 games lost when leading or tied through six was the most. What will have to save Texas is the overwhelming offense. Its .916 OPS in September was 100 points better than anyone else’s in the league. Small wonder the Rangers were right behind the Red Sox and Yankees as the league’s third-ranked offense. Michael Young and Adrian Beltre (both pictured) combined for 211 RBI, and Josh Hamilton added 94 in only 121 games.
Can the Yankees slug their way to the World Series?
It’s possible, although it's a risk to count on regular-season run production in October. True, the Yankees were the American League's most-feared offense after the All-Star break, as Derek Jeter returned to respectability. Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson combined for 237 RBI, and Mark Teixeira added 39 home runs and 111 RBI. But what happened to Alex Rodriguez, who spent most of the season hurt or invisible? Why has Teixeira, only 31, seen his average drop three straight years? And having been dropped to the No. 5 spot, how much protection can Teixeira expect from Nick Swisher, who has a .162 career average in the postseason? In other words, it’s hard to imagine the Yankees winning anything without dominant pitching.
Do the Cardinals have a chance?
How about the fact they're one of only two National League teams to have a winning record against the Phillies this year (6-3)? A couple of other factors to consider: The Cardinals led the NL in runs and OPS in September, and the pitching staff lowered its ERA to 3.13 from 3.89 in August. The Cardinals are body-surfing the same wave of crazy karma as the Rays. You go 10-2 down the stretch, you believe anything is possible, even with the absence of a bona fide closer. Somehow the Cardinals made it to the postseason despite 26 blown saves, second most in the majors.
How far can Prince Fielder carry the Brewers?
You can expect a fair share of home runs from the slugging first baseman — he's a major reason the Brewers were one of the loosest teams of 2011. Ryan Braun, who narrowly missed winning the batting title, combines with Fielder to make Milwaukee the premier home-run-hitting entity coming out of the National League. In terms of sheer power, the Brewers are the NL's version of the Yankees, which would make for a riveting LCS against the Phillies if those two monsters meet. You have to like the Brewers’ bullpen, too, as John Axford was 46 for 48 in save opportunities and Francisco Rodriguez was good for 16 holds and a strikeout an inning.
Is Kirk Gibson the difference maker in October?
He did it in 1988 with the Dodgers and has bestowed his firsthand experience upon the Diamondbacks. Look what Gibson did for Ian Kennedy, who didn't live up to expectations with the Yankees but proceeded to become a 20-game winner in Arizona. The D-backs also maximized their bullpen, as J.J. Putz put up 45 of the team’s NL-best 58 saves. Throw in Justin Upton's 31 home runs, and you have the nucleus of a fine team that believes in itself, even if the over-achievement figures to end quickly in the postseason.
Is there any way to cope with Verlander's fastball?
"Good luck" is how one talent evaluator put it, when asked that very question. Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander has always been a hard thrower, but he became downright lethal in 2011, concocting a mix of velocity and precision that comes around once in a generation. Opponents batted just .191 against Verlander — a career low, as his walk ratio dropped to 2.04 per nine innings. That 0.92 WHIP is also a lifetime best. No one wants to face the Tigers' right-hander, not even the Yankees. They battled to what could be described as a draw this season — two meetings, two no-decisions. Although the Bombers scored six earned runs in 12 innings, Verlander nevertheless struck out 16.